Around the world, a broad spectrum of advocacy groups, think tanks, and international fora have increasingly called for the need to address and reduce the global digital divide, defined generally as the gap between those who have access to reliable Internet and those who do not. Starting in earnest in the early 2000s, the UN launched a number of initiatives which have raised awareness on this issue, including the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), since 2003, and the Internet governance Forum (IGF), since 2006. At the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN body primarily responsible for information and communication technologies (ICT), the organisation’s development sector (ITU-D) highlights the outsized impact of the digital divide on specific segments of the population, such as youth and children, women and girls, persons with disabilities and older persons, as well as indigenous peoples and people living in remote areas.
Much of the current discourse on the digital divide focuses on its impact on these and other groups in vulnerable situations, in turn contributing to a trove of research identifying the specific challenges many of these groups face and projects dedicated addressing them. One notable exception, however, is the case for the LGBTQ+ community.
Although LGBTQ+ individuals’ identities often intersect with one or multiple other groups in vulnerable situations, many of their experiences on- and offline are shaped by their sexual orientation and/or gender identity – both positively and negatively. A 2017 school report by UK-based Stonewall found that 95% of surveyed LGBTQ+ youth said the Internet helped them find positive role models 90% felt they could be themselves online. Conversely, a 2022 survey by the Trevor Project found that 63% of respondents felt that their own homes were not LGBTQ+ affirming spaces and 45% believed the same was true of their schools. Taken together, it comes as no surprise that LGBT youth reported being online 45 minutes a day more on average than surveyed non-LGBT youth.
What complicates our understanding of how the digital divide affects the LGBTQ+ community even further is the lack of available data that is readily accessible on LGBTQ+ individuals, especially outside of the US and Europe. A 2019 study on LGBT people in rural America, for example, reported that LGBT youth in urban areas are estimated to be over three times more likely than non-LGBT youth to experience online bullying and harassment, and even more so for those in rural areas; however, the report based these statistics on data from 2013. As Internet phenomena, such as the evolution of social media, advance at a lightning pace, a six-year gap could mean a world of difference towards our understanding of how the digital gap affects LGBTQ+ individuals – especially those in hard-to-reach areas with little to no Internet connectivity.
While a significant aspect informing this dearth of data is the hesitancy of people to come forward and participate in surveys and research projects for fear of their safety and of retribution, more can and should be done to better understand the biggest hurdles posed by the digital divide to the LGBTQ+ community. Some of those challenges have been identified by civil society groups like LGBT Tech, which advocates for universal broadband and expanded 5G access in the United States to combat the discrimination faced by LGBTQ+ individuals by their physical communities, in healthcare, and towards securing inclusive jobs and safe housing. At the same time, our lack of knowledge of the needs of millions of LGBTQ+ people worldwide hinder broader efforts to close the digital divide for groups in vulnerable situations overall. This Pride Month, and in general, the global ICT community should reflect on these challenges, uplift LGBTQ+ voices who are willing to share their perspectives, and contribute to a safer overall environment for those who cannot.